Obituary: John Russell Prescott (1924-2011)

19th December 2012

Emeritus Professor John Prescott passed away in September 2011 at the age of 87 following a short illness. He is survived by his wife of 70 years, Jo, and children, James, Ann and Kate.

John’s birth in Egypt in 1924 near the pyramids of Giza provided an appropriate beginning to a life that would make important contributions to the development and promotion of archaeological science. In the first year of his life, John and his family moved to Adelaide, where his father became the first Professor of Agricultural Chemistry at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute and later the Director of the Institute in 1938. John attended Scotch College and then studied physics at the University of Adelaide, receiving the degree of BSc(Hons) in 1945. He then moved to the University of Melbourne to pursue a PhD addressing cosmic ray showers and bursts, being awarded one of the first PhD degrees in Physics from that institution in 1949. Following completion of his PhD, John accepted a scholarship from Christchurch College, Oxford University, to pursue a DPhil degree, which he was awarded in 1953 for his thesis addressing the nuclear structures of heavy elements.

In 1953 John and his family returned to Melbourne, where he worked with the Australian Atomic Energy Commission at the University of Melbourne. In 1956 he moved the family to Canada to accept a lectureship in physics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. John was awarded an Associate Professor position at the University of Calgary in Alberta in 1960 and was promoted to Professor of Physics at Calgary in 1968. In 1971 the family returned to Adelaide, where John was first awarded the position of Professor of Physics at the University of Adelaide, and then appointed as the Elder Professor of Physics in 1982, a position first held by Nobel prize-winning Sir William Bragg in 1886. Following 20 years of service at the University, John retired in 1990. Throughout his 20 year career at the University of Adelaide, John made significant contributions to Australian archaeometry, especially in the area of luminescence dating. John’s volunteer field experience with Graeme L. Pretty at the Roonka archaeological site on the lower Murray River near Blanchetown, South Australia (SA), in the mid-1970s stimulated his interests in the improvement of chronometric dating techniques. He realised the potential contribution of the relatively new thermoluminescence dating method to Australian archaeology and established a laboratory to pursue this research area. In addition to Roonka, John conducted fieldwork at the important sites of Lake Mungo and Puritjarra. Other fieldwork locations included sites throughout Australia (especially SA) and the Pacific, as well as in China and Thailand. In order to contribute to ongoing debates concerning the development of scientific archaeology in Australia, John coordinated and hosted the Third Australian Archaeometry Conference at the University of Adelaide in 1988, as well as being a regular contributor at other Australian archaeometry conferences. Following his official retirement in 1990, John remained active and continued to involve colleagues and students in field and laboratory research.

I first met John Prescott in 1983 when I arrived at the South Australian Museum (SAM) to pursue research for my MA thesis on the Roonka site. John was dedicated to the ongoing research programme at Roonka and provided invaluable assistance to me in relation to the completion of my project. John and Graeme introduced me to a number of colleagues who were influential in the development of archaeological science in SA. These included John Hutton (CSIRO Soils), Ken Brown (Forensic Odontology, University of Adelaide), Rod Wells (Biological Sciences, Flinders University) and Herb Veeh (Earth Sciences, Flinders University). All were involved in the interdisciplinary research at Roonka. The 1980s were a dynamic period in relation to archaeological research at the SAM. The extensive research group, including a number of international colleagues, provided a stimulating and challenging environment.

John continued to be an influential advocate of archaeological science in Australia and a keen supporter of research at Roonka until the time of his death. John’s dedication and enthusiasm for interdisciplinary research and scholarship will live on in the numerous colleagues and students who were influenced by his contributions. 

Selected Publications of John Prescott related to Australian Archaeology

Bowler, J.M., H. Johnston, J.M. Olley, J.R. Prescott, R.G. Roberts, W. Shawcross and N.A. Spooner 2003 New ages for human occupation and climatic change at Lake Mungo, Australia. Nature 421:837–840. Chen, X.Y., J.R. Prescott and J.T. Hutton 1990 Thermoluminescence dating on gypseous dunes of Lake Amadeus, Central Australia. Australian Journal of Earth Sciences 37:93–101. 

Huntley, D.J., D.I. Godfrey-Smith, M.L.W. Thewalt, J.R. Prescott and J.T. Hutton 1988 Some quartz thermoluminescence spectra relevant to thermoluminescence dating. Nuclear Tracks and Radiation Measurements 14: 27–33.

Huntley, D.J., J.T. Hutton and J.R. Prescott 1993 The stranded beach dune sequence of south-east South Australia: A test of thermoluminescence dating, 0–800 ka. Quaternary Science Reviews 12:1–20.

Huntley, D.J., J.T. Hutton and J.R. Prescott 1993 Optical dating using inclusions within quartz grains. Geology 21:1087-1090.

Huntley, D.J., J.T. Hutton and J.R. Prescott 1994 Further thermoluminescence dates from the dune sequence in the southeast of South Australia. Quaternary Science Reviews 13:201–207.

Hutton, J.T. and J.R. Prescott 1992 Field and laboratory measurements of low-level thorium, uranium and potassium. Nuclear Tracks and Radiation Measurements 20:367–370.

Hutton, J.T., J.R. Prescott, J.R Bowman, M.N.E. Dunham, A.J. Crone, M.N. Machette and C.R. Twidale 1994 Thermoluminescence dating of Australian palaeo-earthquakes. Quaternary Science Reviews 13:143–148.

Prescott, J. R. 1982 Thermoluminescence dating in the South-West Pacific region. Journal of the Council of Europe PACT 7:67– 73.

 Prescott, J.R. 1983 TL dating of sands at Roonka, South Australia. Journal of the Council of Europe PACT 9:505–512.

Prescott, J.R. (ed.) 1988 Archaeometry: Australasian Studies 1988. Adelaide: Department of Physics and Mathematical Physics, University of Adelaide.

Prescott, J.R. (ed.) 1988 Early Man in the Southern Hemisphere. Supplement to Archaeometry: Australasian Studies 1988. Adelaide: Department of Physics and Mathematical Physics, University of Adelaide.

Prescott, J.R. and P.J. Fox 1990 Dating quartz sediments using the 325 C TL peak:New spectral data. Ancient TL 8:32–34.

Prescott, J.R. and J.T. Hutton 1988 Cosmic ray and gamma ray dosimetry for TL and ESR. Nuclear Tracks and Radiation Measurements 14:223–227.

Prescott, J.R. and J.T. Hutton 1994 Cosmic ray contributions to dose rates for luminescence and ESR dating: Large depths and long-term time variations. Radiation Measurements 23:497–500.

Prescott, J.R. and J.T. Hutton 1995 Environmental dose rates and radioactive disequilibrium from some Australian luminescence dating sites. Quaternary Science Reviews 14:439–448.

Prescott, J.R. and B. Mojarrabi 1993 Selective bleach: An improved partial bleach technique for finding equivalent doses for TL dating of quartz sediments. Ancient TL 11:27–30.

Prescott, J.R. and R.A. Purvinskis 1991 Zero thermoluminescence for zero age. Ancient TL 9:19–20.

Prescott, J.R. and R.A. Purvinskis 1993 A problem in the thermoluminescence dating of recent sediments. In B.L. Fankhauser and J.R. Bird (eds), Archaeometry: Current Australasian Research, pp.110–113. Occasional Papers in Prehistory 22. Canberra: Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University.

Prescott, J.R. and G.B. Robertson 1997 Sediment dating by luminescence: A review. Radiation Measurements 27:893–922.

Prescott, J.R. and J.E. Sherwood 1988 Thermoluminescence ages for an unusual shell deposit at Point Ritchie, Warrnambool, Australia. In J.R. Prescott (ed.), Archaeometry: Australasian Studies 1988, pp.61–69. Adelaide: Department of  Physics and Mathematical Physics, University of Adelaide.

Prescott, J.R., P.J. Fox, G.B. Robertson and J.T. Hutton 1994 Three-dimensional spectral studies of the bleaching of the thermoluminescence of feldspars. Radiation Measurements 23:367–375.

Prescott, J.R., D.J. Huntley and J.T. Hutton 1993 Estimation of equivalent dose in thermoluminescence dating—the Australian slide method. Ancient TL 11:1–5.

Prescott, J.R., G.B. Robertson and R.C. Green 1982 Thermoluminescence dating of Pacific Island pottery: Successes and failures. Archaeology in Oceania 17:142–147.

Prescott, J.R., H. A. Polach, G.L. Pretty and B.W. Smith 1983 Comparison of 14C and thermoluminescent dates from Roonka, South Australia. Journal of the Council of Europe PACT 8:205–211.

Robertson, G.B. and J.R. Prescott 2006 Luminescence dating at the archaeological and human burial site at Roonka, South Australia. Quaternary Science Reviews 25:2586–2593.

Smith, M.A., J.R. Prescott and M.J. Head 1997 Comparison of 14C and thermoluminescence chronologies at Puritjarra Rock Shelter, Central Australia. Quaternary Science Reviews 16:299–320.

Tejan-Kella, M.S., D.J. Chittleborough, R.W. Fitzpatrick, C.H. Thompson, J.R. Prescott and J.T. Hutton 1990 Thermoluminescence dating of coastal sand dunes at Cooloola and North Stradbroke Island, Australia. Australian Journal of Soil Research 28:465-481.

Tolcher, H., J. Prescott and J. Mulvaney 2002 Obituary. Graeme Lloyd Pretty 1940– 2000. Records of the South Australian Museum 35:97–103.

Twidale, C.R., J.R. Prescott, J.A. Bourne and F.M. Williams 2001 Age of desert dunes near Birdsville, southwest Queensland. Quaternary Science Reviews 20:1355–1364.

Walshe, K., J. Prescott, F. Williams and M. Williams 2001 Preliminary investigation of Indigenous campsites in late Quaternary dunes, Port Augusta, South Australia. Australian Archaeology 52:5–8. 

Donald Pate
Obituary: John Russell Prescott (1924-2011)
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